The term 'electronic music' is often used interchangeably with 'dance music', when in reality it represents a much more comprehensive and colourful array of sounds and genres than music aimed at getting people to dance. In the broadest sense of the term, the earliest electronic instruments date back to the 18th century, finding their way into musical works long before DJs were calling people to the dancefloor.
Today there is are scores of musicians and movements using electronic instruments to push the sonic arts in every possible direction, creating tonal and atonal works that range from accessible to avant garde. One of these artists is American composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith whose etherial use of analogue synthesizers has led her to become one of the faces of modern electronic composition.
Her latest album The Mosaic of Transformation just came out on Ghostly International and is an engrossing ecosystem of sound that attests to the infinite sonic abilities of electronic music.
We caught up with her in the wake of the release to dive a little deeper into her approach to music. Here's what she had to say.
So your album is out! How does that feel?
It's such an interesting mixture of feelings. I don't know if every musician feels this when they're albums come out but often times it's so much later then when the album was finished, because it takes so long to get something into production. So it's kind of nice because it feels like you go through these waves of reflection when the project is done and so I'm kind of in that wave right now of each time looking back on the process and it feels so connected to personal lessons that I'm learning each time I make music, so it kind of feels like a reflection of lessons I've been learning during the past two years. So it's reflective, I'll say that.
Looking back on your new album with this period of reflection, does anything hit you a little differently then when you were making it?
That seems to always happen for me at the end of a project and as time goes by. I hear it differently. And sometimes it's in a really wonderful way where I feel surprised, or I'm like 'oh neat I'm getting that first listen experience again'. Or just getting to feel objective about it. And then sometimes it's challenging because it feels like the initial feeling that was there for the inspiration has moved into a different place so it will just feel like I'm watching someone else.
What are your overall feelings of the project? Still happy with it?
Yeah! When I'm creating my hope is to always create something that feels like it's not a part of me so that I'm able to look at it like it's its own thing. So often times it's actually harder for me to look at a project in the beginning of it, or beginning to mid point, because it feels like it's still separating from me to become its own thing. But then once it gets this far into it I feel pretty objective about it and then I like to just think about it like I'm looking at a photo where I feel just appreciative of it as its own thing.
You said the album is to your love of electricity and is your expression of electricity. Can you expand on that a little bit?
The analogy I've been able to use recently is like when you're looking at something beautiful that you've seen in nature and you feel so overcome by its beauty that you feel speechless and feel in awe. I felt that way and still do feel that way about electricity and I felt like the only thing I could do in that experience was to create sound to share my appreciation back to it.
And is the electricity you're talking about purely the actual scientific thing or are you talking also about connections and things like that?
Well all of it because to me that's all the same thing. Our body is alive because of electricity and plants grow because of electricity and all of our devices work because of electricity and I love that I'm able to make music because of electricity. Otherwise my synth is just this box of parts. So to me it's what animates life and I feel really connected to the scientific explanation of it and I feel really connected to the mystery of it, that it's just this natural force that's a part of our world and that there's still so much of it that we don't understand and our whole nervous system is electricity. So it just feels like such a foundational element of our existence and I'm constantly uncovering more and more about it and feeling so inspired by it.
You've said that there's over 10 iterations of the album and I'm wondering how you settled on what is the final product. How did you know it was finished?
Mostly by reconnecting to my intention each time, which was that awe expression and appreciation of electricity. In other words, to me when you are sharing gratitude and appreciation to something, it's a really strong energetic exchange of kindness and so that was always the backbone. I would constantly listen to what I was making and just be kind of scraping through what is essentially emotional garble from that day of how I was feeling and what is a true expression of my kindness or of wanting to share kindness, wanting to share feeling connected to kindness.
It seems to me that electronic musicians, especially ones that use analogue synths, could really struggle to finish projects because the sound possibilities for all intents and purposes are infinite. How do you deal with that?
Yeah, it's kind of that way in all aspected of being a composer. I think for me it all goes back to what's the intention because otherwise you're just swimming in an infinite pool of sound.
One of the most interesting things I've seen you say is that you're always looking for music that doesn't get stuck in your head, which I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say before. Why is that and what does that mean?
Well, I really love to listen to everything inside of my own head and if I have a song stuck in my head then it tends to muddy it. Sometimes it's nice because it just feels like it's highlighting something that's in my head that I should pay attention to. But then when I go to make music, because I always make music by listening to what music I hear when I close my ears, if I hear lots of music that I heard on the radio or on Spotify then I kind of have to do a process to sort through that. So it's nice to not have to sort through that. And then I also do it because I'm one of those people who without thinking about it is always singing, and if I'm listening to stuff that gets stuck in my head then the people around me get really annoyed [laughs].
Do you think this influences your work? Do you think you try to follow that principle of not wanting music that gets stuck in your head in your own work?
There's an aspect of music that is polyrhythmic and that doesn't repeat, that has a constant change in its overlapping. I like to follow that so that it feels like there's a forward movement but it's really subtle. Sometimes when you hear that in music it sounds like it's repeating but if you actually were to break it down it's these tiny movements that are overlapping in different ways. So I guess one of the goals is to create music that feels like it's registering a movement in any direction rather than wrapping around you and staying still. But I also have no control over how someone else sees something, so I try and let go of all intentions on that end as well.
About your vocals which you put through filters and modulations, how have you settled on an overarching sound?
It changes from album to album. This one has probably the least amount of processing. The majority of the time on this one it's actually just a dry vocal that I put through different mics instead of processing it. On one of the songs I use an aural exciter. I guess I just decide by using my ear, trying to match what I hear internally and then it's just detective work to try to figure out how to actualise that sound.
What do you think processing vocals can accomplish that just straight vocals can't?
I always loved when I was learning about orchestration in school, I remember one of my teachers said that the point of all instruments is to feel like an extension of the voice and that they pick up where the voice can't. Even though there's some elements of that that I disagree with, I also appreciate thinking about the voice like that as well, that there's ways to extend the voice where it can't physically take you.
You use a lot of analogue synths which are obviously a bit unpredictable and I've seen you talk about how it can be a little stressful in a live setting. Is that unpredictability actually a draw to those kinds of instruments or a kind of necessary evil?
I definitely don't think of it as an evil. I guess I just think about it like a living thing. In general when approaching music I don't really like to think about it like I have the power to command energy into music. I like to think about it like a conversation that's happening with sound. A lot of times even when I do have an intention, there's always room for what actually wants to happen. That tends to leave me in a less frustrated place, when I have room for what the instrument that I'm playing wants to share.
I wanted to ask because there's an age old debate over the role of the artist and technology, which only ever increases as technology becomes able to do more and more. Do you think there's limits to how far you can put things in the hands of instruments or is it all just about the end result?
I guess what that question makes me think of is back to electricity. The first part of the question was about the role of the instrument and it made me think about how I have a hard time collaborating with just any instrument. For me it has to be one that I can feel electricity through and I think that's why I'm so attracted to analogue vintage synthesizers because the component allowed more electricity through them and I can feel that and hear it and it feels like a collaboration with an aspect of nature because electricity is a huge part of nature.
So I feel like having more access to electricity through those instruments feels like there are more opportunities for natural expressions from theses capsulated versions of electricity where I don't always feel that when I'm making music on the computer or on newer synths that maybe have components that don't let in as much electricity. I haven't totally found the language to describe it but there is a difference that I'm always feeling and hearing and that's how I filter through what instrument I'm going to use, is how much breath and life do I feel like is present in this instrument. I feel like there's electricity in acoustic instruments as well, and that's how I gravitate towards which instrument and which player. When I used to write for orchestras that was something I was always listening for, how is that collaboration with that player and their instrument. I don't know if that answered your question [laughs].
You've talked about having an acute visual connection to sound, which makes me think about visuals at shows which are ever increasing at festivals and tours. Do you have an opinion on the increase of visuals at shows?
No [laughs]. I guess I haven't really thought about it increasing, but I think the more that people are using electronic instruments it makes it really easy to sync it up with the music. Not that it isn't doable without electronic instruments but I think people get really excited by that. I know I get really excited by being able to control the visuals with my setup, or have them align. But now it's interesting because we're moving into this live streaming version of shows and that's kind of what you're faced with, having something to stare at right in front of you.
Obviously you were supposed to be on tour right now any ideas what's going to happen there?
I don't think any of us know what's going to happen. From what I hear there's no shows for 2020, but I don't know what the trajectory is for that.
What kind of set up were you going to take on the road with you this time around and did you have any visual things you were going to breakout or what was the plan?
I had visuals and I'm performing with a Buchla 200E and a Buchla Lighting Wand. It was mostly going to be a setup with visuals that were controlled by the synthesizer and then singing. I had written parts for an orchestra for all the places that there were opportunities for that because the original vision for the album was to record an orchestra and I wrote out all the parts but couldn't find all the resources to record it, so hopefully there'll be a version of it in the future with an orchestra.
Oh cool. I've seen you say you want to do a straight up orchestral work, do you think that might still happen?
I would love to! Now that I've spent so much time with synthesizers, it's hard to imagine not weaving those in in some way, but I would still be inspired if someone said you cannot use synthesizers, you can only use orchestral instruments then I would still be really excited about that.
I see your label Touch The Plants has been putting things out recently, tell me about them.
Last year I started a label with anther artist named Cool Maritime and we just released a book and cassette tape, which if you go to the Touchtheplants website you can see the video and pictures of what it is. It's a collaboration between the musician Cool Maritime and a poet Rob Moss Wilson and its really special and I really love it!